Polar bears, melting glaciers – and a blues festival: my wild week on Svalbard

Polar bears, melting glaciers – and a blues festival: my wild week on Svalbard

Don’t worry,” says our guide Charlotta, flashing her rifle. “I’m really quick if I need to be.” My 12-year-old daughter glances around the Arctic wilderness anxiously. As much as she loved Philip Pullman’s armoured bears, one of the reasons she longed to visit, our proximity to the real thing is starting to dawn on her.

There are road signs all over town warning us about the risk of polar bears. They number around 3,000 here, compared to 2,500 or so human inhabitants – which is why the Svalbard authorities insist you walk beyond the main settlement only with an armed guide.

As a result, attacks are extremely rare – around five since the 1970s – the aim being for humans and bears to interact as little as possible: they’re protected by law and it’s a crime to hunt, feed or disturb them.

Dog tired: a sled on wheels, Longyearbyen.
Dog tired: a sled on wheels, Longyearbyen. Photograph: Eveline Lunde/Hurtigruten Svalbard

Charlotta isn’t taking any risks this morning. She loads four bullets into the gun’s barrel, clicks it shut and slings it across her shoulder. “Right, let’s go,” she says and we follow her across the frozen tundra as she tells us about the life of the trappers more than 100 years ago, hunting foxes and polar bears, often alone and several days from civilisation.

We stand silently soaking up the scale of this unforgiving landscape. A profound sense of isolation and solitude hangs over us in a land where historically only the toughest survive: hardy adventurers, hunters and explorers. Yet it’s this harshness that makes it so appealing, and beautiful, too. It’s a place of extremes with temperatures that can plunge to -20C in winter and in the long polar winters there is no noticeable difference between night and day. It’s also the time you’re most likely to see the northern lights.

We land during the last remaining hours of sunlight and our first sight of Svalbard is a bleak range of black spiky mountains swathed in cloud, a peach sun hanging below the horizon.

Polar night: Longyearbyen.
Polar night: Longyearbyen. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

The Norwegian archipelago is about midway between Norway and the North Pole, and it’s one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. There are three main islands and Spitsbergen is the largest. Longyearbyen, where we’re staying, is its main settlement, populated largely by tour guides, tourists, academics and researchers.

There is only one road: Main Street, a short, snowy avenue that puts my local high street to shame. Their local store (Coop Svalbard) has an impressive range of fresh produce as well as a drinks aisle stacked with champagne, gin and beer – they have their own brewery nearby (“The world’s northernmost craft brewery”). We stop for a tasty smoked salmon sandwich at Café Fruene across the road. Opposite is Nordover, their arts cinema (“The northernmost arts centre in the world”). There’s also the Karlsberger Pub, known as KB to the locals, open until 2am most evenings. It’s surprisingly easy to spend money here: there’s a tempting array of shops selling outdoor kit and Scandi knitwear, and one of Norway’s finest restaurants, Huset, is here, too, with a focus on Nordic cuisine.

We stay closer to home, eating at Barentz gastropub (you’ve guessed it, “The northernmost pub in the world”) attached to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Polar. The menu is varied and tasty; between us we enjoy a caramel milkshake, a glass of riesling and homemade pizza. The rooms are stylish, cosy and warm, while the Scandi buffet breakfast is a highlight; scrambled eggs and smoked salmon in the morning with views across the mountains is hard to beat.

Just chilling out: Longyearbyen.
Just chilling out: Longyearbyen. Photograph: Svalbard/Eveline Lunde/Hurtigruten Svalbard

Tempting as it is to lounge in the hotel – there’s a sauna and outdoor Jacuzzi – Svalbard is all about its outdoor activities. First stop is a glacier cruise aboard a hybrid electric catamaran, a greener way to explore the fjords with propellers that minimise noise and vibration.

“Welcome to nature’s cathedral,” says Sam, our guide, as we set off. Sam, a marine biologist, is passionate about his subject. “This is where we watch climate change in real time.” For Svalbard, real time is accelerating at an alarming rate – perhaps more swiftly than anywhere else in the world. Research suggests this whole area is warming six times faster than the global average. Some predict that in the next 70 years, its glaciers will lose ice at twice the current rate. He shows us a series of Nasa images that illustrate the dramatic rate of ice and glacier decline. The only way forward, he believes, is collective participation through science. “Get involved’,” he enthuses to us. “Citizen projects in your local area is a good way to start. We need more eyes, counting birds, researching, collaborating.”

The mood is sombre as we approach the glacier front of Nordenskiöldbreen. They turn off the engines and we stand on deck, soaking in the silence and the extraordinary sight in front of us: a vast glacier, around 25km in length and 11km in width, glowing blue from layers of ice compressed over time. The engines switch on as we make our way home and Karl, a historian, regales us with creepy stories about adventurers out at sea. He points to a perfectly preserved cabin – Svenskehuset – crouching on a snow bank where a group of 17 seal hunters mysteriously died during one long winter in 1872. The last man keeled over just as the rescuers arrived – the only clue as to what had happened was a diary one of the men kept, filled only with mad scribbling. Around 130 years later, researchers determined to solve the mystery returned to find their buried bodies still intact in the permafrost. Samples taken revealed high levels of lead – also found in the sealant of the tin cans they’d been heating up to eat from. The extreme effects of lead poisoning had killed them having sent them crazy first. Svalbard is full of strange stories and facts like these. For instance, no one gives birth on Svalbard because there’s only one hospital and no maternity services, so pregnant women are flown to the mainland shortly before their due date. No one can be buried here either – permafrost means bodies can’t decompose, leading to fears that viruses and infections can be preserved, too. And cats are banned because they might harm the wildlife, in particular the bird population.

Fireside chat: a Wilderness Evening at Camp Barentz, Spitsbergen.
Fireside chat: a Wilderness Evening at Camp Barentz, Spitsbergen. Photograph: Svalbard/Rene Bjerregård

Back on dry land, our final adventure is dog-sledding with eight eager huskies pulling us along through the Arctic night. The highlight for my daughter is meeting the puppies afterwards. Then we head for Camp Barentz in the wilderness and sit in a cabin around a fire, eating, drinking and hearing tales about Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz, who discovered Svalbard in 1596.

We spend our final evening watching a blues band in a local bar. It’s packed and there’s a party atmosphere, dancing, singing and high spirits. It’s part of their annual Dark Season Blues festival which marks the loss of daylight for the rest of the season. Svalbardians aren’t daunted by the extremes of living here and the challenges of the polar winter ahead. Instead they take pleasure and celebrate it – and you can see why.

A five-night break in Svalbard costs from £599 per person, including B&B accommodation at the Radisson Blu. The Wildlife and Glacier cruise is £208 per adult, £112 per child, and husky on wheels is £120 per adult, £60 per child. Wilderness evening is £108 per adult, £57 per child. To book, visit: discover-the-world.com. For more information, go to visitnorway.com

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